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Lessons learned from Riyadh


At Outsourced last year, we were fortunate enough to help a number of global brands with some substantial events throughout the EMEA region. This meant working across several different cultures and languages.  One of our Event Managers, Linda Davies, writes about our experience of running events in Saudi Arabia…

“Last year saw the OE team supporting clients in over 20 countries and as the team speaks eight different languages, communicating with the country hosting the event is not a problem.  It’s not only communication that matters in ensuring the smooth running of our events, however, but also the different cultural values of the country in question. This is why, when working with a non-European culture, we’ll usually partner with a local agent to work with us on the ground. In 2012, we ran events in Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Casablanca, Dubai, Doha and Riyadh, all great places for an event and all culturally different.  It was the first time we’d ever worked in Riyadh, though, so understanding the cultural differences was one of the first objectives.

Respecting the local culture

Riyadh, and the whole of Saudi Arabia is a very conservative Muslim country. Traditional roles are highly valued, and you’re expected to follow the strict moral codes whilst traveling within the country. Men and women don’t mix much in this country.

Once the plane touched down in Riyadh,  I put on my abaya (a covering from neck to ankles showing no shapely form) and donned a black scarf around my neck.  I then lined up at passport control in a women’s only area, which was actually quite convenient as I got through much quicker than most of the men!  Once my visa had been checked and stamped I got into the car that had been organised by the hotel.  If this hadn’t been organised beforehand, I wouldn’t have been able to leave the airport!  It’s also worth pointing out that there are officials, stationed in public places, such as airports and shopping centres, that wander around carrying sticks. If you’re not wearing your scarf on your head, you’re likely to get tapped on the shoulder with the stick by one of these men who will say “woman cover your head”!

Once in the international hotel, The Four Seasons in this case, I didn’t have to wear my scarf and I have to say that everyone was extremely courteous and polite.  Whilst there is a differential between men and women, I did feel that women were respected and if I asked for something to be done with regards to the event set-up, it was always done without any problem.

Strict moral codes

There are certain codes within Saudi Arabia that need to be adhered to, and they are as follows:

  • Segregated prayer area for men and women
  • Segregated eating area for men and women
  • Reserved seating for women and in some cases there may need to be segregated
  • Permission needs to be requested by the hotel to hold an event where men and women will be mixing
  • No alcohol at any time! Alcohol is illegal in Riyadh, but the mint tea is delicious
  • Photography of local people, government buildings, military installations and palaces is not allowed.

Outside the Hotel

The Saudi currency is the Riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halala. Foreign currency can be changed at banks and exchange bureaux. Banking hours are generally Saturday to Wednesday from 8am to 12pm and 4pm to 8pm. All major credit cards are accepted at shops, hotels and restaurants in Saudi Arabia.

Museums and other sites within the city have separate operating times for men and for families. Unaccompanied women are expected to be chaperoned at all times. Chaperoning is especially important in travel, as women are not allowed to drive cars or ride bicycles in public, making travel from one place to another quite difficult when traveling by one’s self.

The event went extremely well and our agent on the ground was superb. The bespoke stage builds and sponsor stands were of a very high quality as were the branded banners.  We did, however, have a problem with importing the merchandise intended to give away to delegates on registration.  Riyadh customs, as it turns out, is extremely bureaucratic and in order to ensure the safe arrival of merchandise on time, it needs to be sent several months in advance, something to remember next time!All in all, we think that Riyadh is an amazing place for an event. Fabulous venues, fantastic service and amazing history just as long as you stick to the rules.”

If you need help with your event contact Denise Sharpe or Alexandra Sibley on 020 8995 9495 – “The best events are Outsourced”

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